“I don’t practice Santeria”

In honor of my first pagan book review, I thought I’d post something relative to the branch of paganism the book explored.

For my World Religion class I had to write a research paper about a religion or an aspect of a specific religion.  The woman who sat next to me was from Colombia and she wrote about Santeria (with a little encouragement from me).  To me, Santeria is basically Latin voodoo mixed with Catholocism.  I may be way off but I’m no Santerian (is that a word?), nor am I Catholic. I don’t know how accurate my friend’s paper is but I’m posting it, anyway.:

Santeria, in some ways, confuses me.  I was always unaware of its true origin.  Is it a religion or is it a cult?  Growing up I was not familiarized with Santeria, however, on one of my trips to the United States I was introduced to the Cuban culture.  I became close with a Cuban girl whose family practice Santeria.  I was invited to her house for dinner one night.  As she showed me around her home, I could not help but notice all the images of saints around her home as well as many color beats and food offerings.  I felt very intrigued and asked her why she had all of these odd things around her home.  She explained that it was due to her religion.  I immediately questioned her, “isn’t that some kind of witchcraft?” without any real knowledge of what Santeria actually represented.  The small knowledge that I did have was not positive.  To me it represented a cult of animal sacrificing, devil-worshiping people.  However, nothing could be farther from the truth.  It is a rich, old religion rife in symbolism that contains a great deal of knowledge, power and beauty.

Santeria, which literally means “the way of the saints”, was brought by the African slaves.  More precisely, the Yoruba people of what is now known as Nigeria.  Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in west Africa.

A huge population of African prisoners of war were enslaved and shipped to the Caribbean, especially Cuba, to work in mines and plantations.  Slaves brought with them their gods, customs and traditions of their Spanish masters.  These “owners” baptized the Roman Catholic and prevented them from practicing pagan faith.  They also prevented them from speaking their language.  They needed to follow Catholicism with devotion.  The Yoruba people felt the need to hold on to their religion.  It did not take the Yoruba people long to see the similarities between their orishas and the Catholic saints.  Soon the various orishas were assigned catholic saints for representation.  When Spanish masters saw them worshiping saints like St. Barbara they were secretly worshiping Chango the god of thunder.

Santeria is mixed with both Spanish and African terminology.  The need to disguise their orishas in the catholic faith is the primary reason why Santeria today is ripe with images of catholic saints.  The patakis tell of how the earth was created, how man came to be and of course how the orishas came in to being as well.  There are many orishas, yet 7 gained the most worship and popularity.  These are sometimes referred to as the 7 African powers.  It is one of these orishas that one receives when one becomes a priest in Santeria.  There are several ranks in the hierarchy of Santeria.  Not everyone becomes a santero (priest or saint).  Only males and those who go through years of devotion and several ranks become saints or priests.  You start on the twelfth rank which is the lowest, reserved for nonbelievers or those with little faith.  When you reach the ninth rank you have initiated to the necklace.  This is the first rank for a person to become a santero.  Very few make it to this rank.  As you rise through the ranks you are given necklaces with different colors, each color representing a different rank.  You must wear these necklaces daily and are only barred from wearing them while bathing or engaging in sex.  Once becoming a saint a ceremony called a kariocha is held.  The ceremony is very costly due to materials and rituals and animals needed.  The kariocha lasts 7 days and at the conclusion, one receives a life reading with an explanation of which initiations he must receive, if any.  Now the saint must dress in white for one year and 7 days as a symbol of appreciation.

Santeria is unique in that not everyone is not called to join the religion.  While one may utilize the powerful magic associated with the religion, they may not be a member of the religion.  Santeria is a rather closed practice mainly due to the bad press it receives.  It requires an introduction into the religion by a practicing santero.  Being brought into this religion by a santero is not enough.  It is the actual orisha who decides if the religion is right for you.  He will decide if you should join and also what level of initiation to undergo.  It is possible for an orisha to allow one to receive the first two initiations and prohibit one from becoming a santero.  That is for the orishas to decide since they know best and are the ones with the direct knowledge from the deities.  In order to see if you could become a santero you must go through a consultation called a registro.  While this consultation can be made by a santero it is best to have it done by a babalowo (saint).


Ifabite, Study of the Teachings of Orumila

Koeko Lyawo

Julio Garcia-The Saint Universal Edition 1983

Santeria:  The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion


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